What did the FBI make of top pop stars?

Spencer Leigh goes digging and discovers some surprising sides to Presley, Lennon, Sinatra - and others
Click to follow

One of the delights of America's Freedom of Information act is that an increasing number of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) files are freely available. Many are censored, but with a little digging you can sometimes find the uncensored version. The bureau, part of the US Department of Justice, investigates matters that concern the United States as a whole, as opposed to specific states. John Edgar Hoover was its director from 1924 until his death at the age of 77 in 1972. His methods and motives were questionable: because he was privy to secret information, he could intimidate leading figures, including presidents. In his time, he served and/or threatened eight US leaders. He also ordered investigations into the Mafia and gangsters in Chicago, and the surveillance of communists and other left-wing radicals.

Enter the FBI's site and you can even find an inviting button marked "Famous Persons" (at http://foia.fbi.gov/famous.htm). Hit it and you can inspect tens of thousands of pages - 2,400 on Frank Sinatra alone - and see what the Untouchables made of Sinatra, Jim Morrison and John Lennon, or, indeed, Albert Einstein and Errol Flynn.

When it came to singing, Frank Sinatra had exquisite taste, but his judgement appeared to leave him outside the concert hall as he associated with gangsters, racketeers and hookers. Sinatra's defence in 1951 was: "When you go into show business, you meet a lot of people, and you don't know who they are and what they do." This from the man who gave Lucky Luciano a solid-gold cigarette case inscribed, "To my dear pal, Lucky, from your friend, Frank Sinatra".

The most intriguing aspect of the Sinatra files relates to what he did, or rather didn't do, during the Second World War. By and large, the authorities did not need conscription, as the Axis threat was so immediate and so serious that the majority of able-bodied men between 18 and 40 made themselves available. In 1940, Sinatra had answered a government questionnaire, "What physical or mental defects or diseases have you had in the past, if any?" with the word, "None". In November 1943, The New York Times reported that he had been passed 1-A for military service by the New Jersey draft board. A few weeks later, he was downgraded to 4-F, which is "unacceptable for medical reasons". The reasons were the chronic perforation of his left eardrum, chronic mastoiditis and emotional instability.

An informant told the FBI that Sinatra had bribed a doctor with $40,000 for that report. They asked him to attend again, but his 4-F status was confirmed. The file states: "During the psychiatric interview, the patient stated that he was neurotic, afraid to be in crowds and afraid to go in an elevator. He had been very nervous for four or five years and is run down and undernourished." Afraid of crowds? Frank Sinatra?

Ol' Blue Eyes returned to performing in public, making films and presumably taking the stairs wherever he went. As one headline put it, "Sinatra 1-A with US girls: rated 4-F by army doctors." If the FBI had proved bribery, Sinatra would have been arrested, imprisoned and branded a coward. It is doubtful that his career would ever have recovered.

Rumours circulated, not with the suggestion that he might be a coward, but that Sinatra might instead be a communist, and the FBI noted the societies he supported, including "The American Crusade to End Lynching". The FBI concluded that he was a "pronounced non-conformist and free-thinker" and Sinatra himself, in 1949, said: "I'm right, not left." The Bureau prepared a 50-page report on Sinatra in 1950 and we learn that Sinatra, presumably in an effort to improve his standing, had offered his services to the CIA, but they concluded: "We want nothing to do with him."

Whereas Sinatra always knew what he was doing, Elvis Presley was gullible and the victim of a con man, Laurens Johannes Griessel-Landau of Johannesburg. Masquerading as a doctor, he wrote to Elvis's secretary, Elisabeth Stefaniak, while Elvis was on army service in Germany in November 1959. He said, "I would not like to see him grow older and who would? I've certainly noted the wrinkles on his forehead and make a note of it to you." Presley thought that the German weather might be damaging to his skin and was impressed with Griessel-Landau's proposed treatment, which is described as aromatherapy. The trickster wrote: "It is my cherished ambition to give you a complete new skin and I swear to achieve this within the quickest possible time. Please don't worry about the small wrinkles on your forehead - you will not age." Immediately, Elvis was obsessed with the small wrinkles on his forehead.

When Griessel-Landau arrived, he made homosexual advances to Presley's friends and possibly to Presley himself. On Christmas Eve, Presley discontinued the treatment. Griessel-Landau went into a fit of rage and "threatened to ruin his singing career and to involve Presley's American girlfriend, Priscilla (a 16-year-old daughter of an Air Force captain)". He claimed to have photographs of them in compromising situations and at this stage, Presley told the FBI that he was being blackmailed.

In December 1970, Presley and Senator George Murphy travelled together from Los Angeles to Washington, and Elvis asked him to arrange a meeting with Hoover. Senator Murphy reported that Presley was "a very sincere young man, deeply concerned over the narcotics problem in this country and is becoming active in the drive against the use of narcotics, particularly by young people."

Presley, accompanied by the former Sheriff of Shelby County, Tennessee and six of his "Memphis Mafia" toured the FBI headquarters on New Year's Eve, 1970. Presley told the staff that Hoover was "the greatest living American" and that no one had done so much for his country. He had read various publications by Hoover including Masters of Deceit and A Study of Communism.

Mr A Jones, who filed a report on his visit, stated: "Despite his rather bizarre personal appearance, Presley seemed a sincere, serious-minded individual who expressed concern over some of the problems confronting our country, particularly those involving young people." Presley said that his own long hair and unusual apparel were "merely the tools of his trade". Jones concluded, "Presley is of the opinion that The Beatles laid the groundwork for many of the problems we are having with young people by their filthy unkempt appearances, and suggestive music, while entertaining in this country during the early and middle Sixties. He advised that the Smothers Brothers, Jane Fonda and other persons in the entertainment industry of their ilk have a lot to answer for in the hereafter for how they have poisoned young minds by disparaging the United States in their public statements and unsavoury activities."

No doubt Elvis would have been the first to condemn the Kingsmen's barnstorming version of "Louie Louie" and (in 1964) the authorities wondered if the song was obscene: "The FBI laboratory advised the record was played at various speeds but none of the speeds assisted in the determining the words of the song on the record." Despite all the discussions of the lyrics on the files, no one thought of contacting the Kingsmen directly and asking them what they had sung.

In 1969 the director of the FBI wrote to the US Attorney General about the cover of Two Virgins, which depicted John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the nude. Was this pornography or not? He was concerned "with the effect such a photograph may have on the youth in this country and requested to know what can be done to keep this photograph out of the hands of the American public." Unfortunately for them, "the photograph does not meet the existing criteria of obscenity from a legal standpoint and is not a violation of the Interstate Transportation of Obscene Matter Statute".

These were radical times. An album by The Fugs, Virgin Fugs, was described by Hoover as "repulsive to right-thinking people and can have serious effects on our young people", but the decision was not to prosecute. The Doors were not so fortunate. Jim Morrison was arrested after this report was considered: "Morrison's programme lasted one hour during which time he sang one song and for the remainder, he grunted, groaned, gyrated and gestured along with inflammatory remarks. He screamed obscenities and exposed himself. The matter will be discussed with the Florida State Attorney's Office to determine if Morrison can be charged with a felony."

In 1971 John and Yoko settled in New York "despite clear ineligibility for US visa due to conviction in London in 1968 for possession of dangerous drugs (marijuana)". When the visa expired the authorities tried to deport him, but the Lennons had delaying tactics, one being the kidnapping of Yoko's daughter by her former husband, Tony Cox. Quite probably, the FBI could have found this child easily enough but it "could result in FBI testifying which would not be in Bureau's best interests". They conclude that Lennon, despite his radical activities, is not much of a threat: "Source advised that Lennon appears to be radically orientated. However, he does not give the impression that he is a true revolutionist as he is constantly under the influence of narcotics."